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Alan Turing

Today would be Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. Alas it never transpired. He died in still debatable circumstances when he was in his prime. Was he a great pure mathematician? Yes, I’d put him almost as high as Gödel and that is like comparing a footballer to Pele. Both of course were not normal men. Turing had some fairly odd ideas and Kurt Gödel starved to death. Gödel was paranoid and refused to eat any food not prepared by his wife, then his wife died. Now Gödel was a nutter. Perhaps everyone who scales such (literally) infinite heights is going to be a bit unusual. It is hard to say what killed Turing. It has entered the popular consciousness that he was a sort of gay martyr (the statue of him in Manchester is in the gay village and not where it ought to be – in front of the University) and this is possibly true. He was convicted of “gross indecency” for having sex with another man. If there is a great villain here it is the law. My understanding is Turing had sex with Arnold Murray in his own home in Wilmslow and it all came out when he reported a burglary by his shagging partner. I fail to see how anyone can be “indecent” in their own home.

But it is possible the cyanide coated apple was a mere mistake. It has been mooted. Certainly Turing (a pure mathematician not schooled in lab discipline) was new to the game. And trust me as a physicist I have worked with lethal things and I wouldn’t trust a mathematician in my lab. Mainly those lethalities were in the sense of serious voltages and radioactive stuff and not any biohazard or poison*. So maybe? Who knows! Who cares! I am typing this on a Lenovo S205. That is what matters. It is certainly possible that the female hormones Turing was ordered to take after his conviction that caused him to grow breasts outraged him because he was also verging on being a world-class long-distance runner or following his conviction (not unrelated to the Cambridge spies) he lost his security clearance (for being gay – unlike the Cambridge spies he was not a KGB agent, just gay) or even the fact he was only a reader at Manchester because the security about Enigma/Lorenz had left a “black-hole” in his career. A fundamental thing here is that we were moving from Empire at the time and gave as a parting gift Enigma machines we’d snicked from the Germans but we didn’t want them to know we could break the code. Sneaky? Brilliant! But it meant nobody involved with Station X or Ultra got the credit. You can compare and contrast with Manhattan. Of course that was for obvious reasons much harder to keep on the QT.

There are people who define centuries. Roughly the Stephensons defined the C19. The C20th was invented by Nikola Tesla. Our time belongs to Turing. If you are reading this you are reading this on a Turing Machine. Much the same as the Turing machine I am writing this on. I got my first Turing machine (a 48K Speccie) in 1984. I felt like a king – I had a computer and they had been huge things maintained by fit librarian-type birds in lab-coats with clip-boards and owned by Bond villains in Mao suits and cats. I wrote a game even – it was very poor – but hell’s buggery – I wrote a game! I learned maths and drew fractals from outlines of programs from Scientific American my Dad nabbed from work. Alan Turing made it so. The game BTW was called “Orc Fighter” and was truly dreadful.

So fill your cups for Alan Turing. He made us. We have a category here called “Transformative Technologies”. Turing is certainly up there. He is up there with George Stephenson and the Wright Brothers. He is there in the pantheon with Tesla and Newton. And I don’t say that about many folks.

*My final university experimental project was… Well I built a magnetometer out of bits. It worked down to very few fractions of a Tesla. Nano Tesla I think. It annoyed some profs because I had proven data of car movements in the car park… Not everyone was actually clocking in or out at time. But that was not my original scheme. Oh, no I wanted to play with magnetotactic bacteria as a model for certain solid state systems. Three problems. A budget of GBP35, the fact these buggers come from New England swamps and thirdly nobody in the physics department having the slightest idea on the H&S issues. The magnetometer was built in the end with scavenged parts for about a tenner. God knows what happened to it.


  1. Mac the Knife says:

    We Brits have a willful (woeful) capacity for refusing to recognise genius in it’s time, leave alone capitalise on it’s bounty. Turing’s miserable tale is a case in point, perhaps the case in point.

    Well said Nick, I will raise a glass to him tonight, and another to his truly titanic legacy…

  2. Talwin says:

    I read somewhere that the inspiration for the Mac apple logo comes from Turing’s possible death by poison apple. Or is that apocryphal?

  3. NickM says:

    Talwin, a curious point. What I do know is that apparently Turing’s fave movie was the Disney Snow White which of course features a poisoned apple. But then Turing was also brought-up and educated as a Christian (that was what I was getting at in terms of his generally weird philosophy – a sort of weird syncretic mix of empiricism and idealism. And we all know what apples mean. The tree of knowledge is not that of life (Byron). But what the fuck! The greatest man who ever drew breath (BTW it is a standard 1st year physics question to estimate the number of O2s you take in with every breath that was exhaled by Sir Isaac). Genius just is. And us Brits have had more than our fair share. Imagine a World without Newton, Darwin, Maxwell or Turing? It would be fucking terrible. We wouldn’t have space-tourism kicking-off – we’d be shivering in some sort of hovel arguing about who gets the uncleanest part of the dead rat. It would be bloody awful.

  4. Talwin says:

    NickM. O2s and Isaac Newton. I seem to remember you’ve mentioned this before. As an Arts grad. (sorry!) I wondered then, and now, what’s the answer?

  5. NickM says:

    It’s surprisingly large. I can’t recall the number or how I came to it though I got it right. Bear in mind this was 1992.

  6. Tim Newman says:

    Caesar’s last breath was the example my chemistry teacher used. We inhale millions of molecules of Caesar’s last breath each time we breathe in, apparently. That Avogadro constant is a seriously large number.

    On Turing, there are some dissenter’s in the comments here. Incidentally, first I heard of Alan Turing was in Manchester where they named a pretty useful piece of road after him, Alan Turing Way. But I was more interested in Whitworth street: I’m sure somebody would have some up with the thread eventually, but the screw thread really did revolutionise engineering as it enabled us to measure stuff to such accuracy.

  7. John Galt says:

    The story of the Apple logo being based upon Alan Turing’s death is wonderful, mythical and unfortunately false. This was confirmed by both Steve Jobs and Rob Janoff (who designed the original logo). The reason that it had a bite out of it was to differentiate it from a tomato or other fruit.

  8. John Galt says:

    As I have mentioned at another place, not only did we give birth to Alan Turing who gave us several of the theoretical aspects fundamental to the design of the electronic computer, but we also give birth to the practical engineering genius to transform a purely theoretical concept into the worlds first programmable electronic computer, the Colossus.

    For myself, I see the work of Tommy Flowers and his team of engineers, from that world famous institution, the Post Office Research Station as far more impressive than the theoretical day-dreams of Mr. Alan Turing.

    This however is another divide, between the singular genius of the theoreticist and the group genius of the team of engineers who actually built it.

    When I look at my Sony VAIO Laptop, I see the ghost of Tommy Flowers, not Alan Turning.

  9. John Galt says:

    Apologies for the auto-correct.

    When I look at my Sony VAIO Laptop, I see the ghost of Tommy Flowers, not Alan Turing.

  10. NickM says:

    Well, obviously Tommy Flowers deserves credit but we can argue the toss eternally over priority here. For my take Colossus was not a UTM*. So that leaves ENIAC (possibly) and the Manchester Baby. God knows. Then there was Babbage (also an oddball) and his Analytical Engine and Augusta Ada the Countess Lovelace.

    *Yes, I appreciate it was built for a very specific and vital task.

  11. John Galt says:

    Agreed, that Colossus was only partially programmable and did not perform the full function of logical and arithmetic operators required to implement a Universal Turing Machine (in itself a logical construct).

    The general purpose ENIAC is probably the first physical implementation that could be described as a Universal Turing Machine in that it was fully programmable.

  12. bloke in spain says:

    Just a small demur on the cyanide angle. Hydrogen cyanide itself is a pretty volatile substance so you’d be unlikely to find any on an apple unless you’d just painted it with aqueous solution. It’d be more likely a salt. I used to toil in a jewellery workshop & we used cyanide salts for plating. Actually ‘workshop’s a bit grand a description. Like most in the trade it was 3 people sitting in each other’s laps. And, if you work with something every day, you’re inclined to get sloppy (unless it’s HF acid!), so getting it on the hands & then a bacon butty wasn’t unknown. Symptoms were fluttery feeling & a bit of a headache. You really would need quite a lot to be a lethal dose.

  13. Edward Lud says:

    Pedantry alert: Station X was a listening station located in an attic room of the manor house at BP. It wad not the same thing as the GCCS itself, a fact which caused the man who discovered the location of Station X, about 15 years ago, some consternation when Channel 4, in about 2002, broadcast a series about the GCCD called “Station X”.

    I know this, because the chap in question told me so when I visited BP in 2002 or thereabouts.

    Other listening stations were IX and XI, and so on.

  14. NickM says:

    We welcome pedantry around here. Keeps us straight arrows. I mean just recently the BBC have been harping on the Turkish Phantom. The call it an F-4. Was is bolllocks! It was an RF-4E. Big difference. Apart from anything the bizarre Turkish claim it was on a training flight doing radar calibration tests is a bit weird considering the RF-4 has a nose full of cameras and not radar. Also you simply wouldn’t fly a lone aircraft there in anything other than a recon role and dear gods you can’t blame the Turks for taking a shufti into the neighbour’s backyard seeing as the neighbour is doing horrific things and Turkey already has 30,000 refugees from Syria. I bet on the sly this isn’t the first time. I also bet the Turks have also on the sly sent the data to the Pentagon and Tel Aviv. Yes, I know they aren’t best buddies with Israel right now but needs must when Assad vomits in your kettle. Now the big question is is this enough to invoke Article 5? The other big question is what downed that Phantom? I suspect after the Israeli’s took out that “whatever” in Syria a bit back with complete impunity Assad ordered a brand spanky new SAM and radar system from Russia. Why are the Russians still supporting the murderous git? They ain’t been paid in full. And they have a naval base there – warm water med port no need to navigate the Bosphorus… Oh, and it’s the arms trade which is corrupt as hell all round. Why do you think the Saudis bought Tornadoes and Tiffies. A grand an hour hooker from BAE Systems works wonders on Saudi princelings. I mean we’re not expecting them to look at mission availablity or sustained turn-rate. That’s what I do when i play flight-sims.

  15. NickM says:

    I once measured Avagadro’s number using a slick on a petri dish on an Easter Holiday masterclass at Newcastle University Chemistry Dept when I were but a kid. You want to know a bigger number? It is the biggest finite number I ever handled (and I’ve “done” Type Ia supernovae – 10 to the 58 Hiroshimas). It is this. Order of mag(ish) for the number of accessible microstates for a warm mug of tea is e to the 10 to the 23.

    And thanks for the link. Much informed discussion at Tim’s gaff. You know like actually on things like maths, science and engineering.

  16. Tim Newman says:

    Yes, I know they aren’t best buddies with Israel right now but needs must when Assad vomits in your kettle.

    I bet the Israelis are sniggering to themselves right now. If I was the Israeli PM, I’d be Tweeting @Turkish_Counterpart: wot, no protest ships for a while, then? lolz

  17. Anomaly UK says:

    One gets the impression from the Jack Copeland piece that for a respected academic in the 50s to be done on a charge of gross indecency was kind of like a rock star being had up for cannabis possession today — a bit of an inconvenience, but a bit of a laugh at the same time.

    Whether that is at all accurate, I really can’t judge, but it has a ring of plausibility.

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